Gone are Philadelphia's days of sporting excellence, which peaked in the '40s and '50s when the Eagles had Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos and Chuck Bednarik, and when Big Five college basketball was the best to be found in any U.S. city as Temple came up with All-Americas Bill Mlkvy and Guy Rodgers, Penn had Ernie-Beck, Villanova had Paul Arizin and La Salle took the 1954 NCAA championship with Tom Gola. Those were the days when the Warriors (predecessors of the 76ers) had Arizin, Neil Johnston and, in later seasons, Wilt Chamberlain. (Lest anyone forget, it was Philadelphia and Wilt who ended the Boston Celtics' domination of the NBA in 1967.) As good as he was, Chamberlain, a hometown boy, achieved his most lasting fame elsewhere—as a collegian at Kansas and now as a Los Angeles Laker. Even his most memorable feat came out of town, when in 1962 he scored an NBA-record 100 points in a game for the Warriors in Hershey, Pa.
Getting out of town has been the secret of success for many Philadelphians, including hordes of entertainers who grew up in South Philly. "The home of the prideful poor," as the area is known, produced Mario Lanza, Joey Bishop, Eddie Fisher and Chubby Checker. Sonny Liston may have put it better than anyone after he moved West. Said Liston: "I'd rather be a lamppost in Denver than mayor of Philadelphia."
Unlike many other American cities, Philadelphia is pleasantly livable. At the same time, there is something about the town that bogs people down, slows their productivity, curbs their initiative. Philadelphians themselves admit this, and enjoy citing the case of the committee that several years ago tried to lure industry and tourists. After many meetings it approved a slogan to be put on billboards and in advertisements: Philadelphia Is Not as Bad as Philadelphians Say It Is.
Los Angeles has its Hollywood and Vine, New Orleans its Bourbon Street, New York its Times Square, Atlanta its Peachtree Street. Philadelphia streets are paved with anonymity. Other cities have been sung about in catchy tunes such as
Galveston, Moon Over Miami
. Nobody sings about Philly. Manhattan has its cocktail. St. Louis its blues. New Orleans its jazz. Philadelphia? Well, what other city has a brand of cream cheese named after it?
The negativism of Philadelphia is compounded of a long record of defeats, mixed with a dash of stoic pride, a hope that perhaps a little suffering will be good for the soul and an ability to laugh at oneself. When the Astrodome was opened in Houston the prevailing local opinion was that it ranked among the wonders of the world, but when Veterans Stadium was unveiled in Philadelphia, with its $3 million scoreboard, its animated cartoons, dancing waters and usherettes in hot pants, the comment most frequently heard was, "Gee, this place is a lot better than I thought it would be." When the Federal Government announced last May that the 1976 Bicentennial International Exposition would not be awarded to Philadelphia, the reaction of people that day throughout the city was, "I knew it. I knew it." Sometimes there was an added comment, such as, "I knew they'd find a way to bungle it." Some 15 years ago the city leaders realized that 1976 was approaching, and that they had better get started. They began by appointing a committee. Over the years they appointed more committees. Losing the exposition cost the city at least $240 million in federal funds as well as the celebration itself. But it was no surprise to Philadelphians. They knew it would be lost. In Philadelphia they know.